Jerusalem from Mount of Olives. (photo by Wayne McLean via Wikimedia Commons)
For a long time, we have been seeking ways to make Jerusalem more than just the centre of the Jewish people, but also a city revived, with a young, optimistic spirit. We have succeeded in many areas, but a major issue remains: housing prices in many neighborhoods are unaffordable for young people.
With this in mind, the idea of raising the municipal tax came to be, with the goal of addressing this important issue. The first time we went to the government with a proposal to double the municipal tax on “ghost apartments” (empty apartments owned by non-residents) in Jerusalem, we were promptly shown the door: the ministers viewed this measure as potentially damaging for their friends abroad. While we share the deep connection with the very same people abroad, we insisted the move would promote our shared goals of a flourishing Jerusalem. But it is in the nature of good ideas to finally break through all obstacles and for disagreements and misunderstandings to be solved, and eventually the idea was approved.
Not everyone thinks increasing municipal taxes for non-residents is a good idea, but such disagreements are part of a legitimate dialogue between friends. However, I believe we might have lost the context of our shared goals. In my opinion, we’re looking at this all wrong. Instead of viewing the increased taxation as a penalty for homeowners, we need to think about this measure as an opportunity.
Jerusalem is in full bloom. Over the last few years, we have seen much progress in education, culture, tourism and the economy. It has bounced back from politicking, social tensions and terror attacks. Today’s Jerusalem is all about innovation, creativity and optimism. Across all sectors of society, Jerusalemites recognize the inherent value of diversity and coexistence. Jerusalem is a pilgrimage site, home to
Israel’s basketball champions (finally!), a place of wondrous architecture, sacred sites, top-notch museums and world-class restaurants. Everyone wants a part of Jerusalem – not in order to save it, but to take part in its success as a city combining tradition and innovation, religiosity and diversity.
It is this success that has made the beating heart of the Jewish world attractive for investors from the world over. Jerusalem currently has around 9,000 “ghost apartments,” including whole neighborhoods such as Kfar David or Mamilla, at the very core of the city. In the building where I lived until recently, seven out of 11 apartments were only in use for a few days each year. It is sad to see whole sections of the city empty. But it is even sadder to think of the young, dynamic population that won’t be able to afford an apartment in central Jerusalem so long as there is someone who will pay more.
Jerusalem is unlike any other city in the world. It is the fountain of ideology and innovation in the Jewish world. It is a challenge and an opportunity. It enjoys a unique, mutual bond with the Diaspora: connections formed here are of special significance to Jews both home and abroad. The cohort of young leaders being formed in Jerusalem is hard at work trying to create new paradigms.
Many owners of “ghost apartments” have invested time, energy and money in Jerusalem with the best intentions at heart, and have a great share in what has become of the city in recent years. But this phenomenon has driven housing costs to the level where it is nearly impossible for the average young Jerusalemite to buy an apartment, or even rent one at a reasonable cost. These young people will not be able to stay, and that is what gave birth to the idea of doubling municipal taxes for non-residents. Or, as I like to call it, “the pro-affordable housing tax.” This new ordinance is projected to generate around 10 million NIS annually, solely dedicated to creating affordable housing for the city’s young.
Again, this is not a penalty, but an opportunity to take part in one of the great challenges of the contemporary Jewish world – maintaining Jerusalem as a vital, tolerant and dynamic city.
Hanan Rubin is a Jerusalem city councilor and a co-founder of the political movement Wake Up Jerusalem, which focuses on quality of life issues for Jerusalem residents.